Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibition review a sumptuous symphony in black

This retrospective is a stone-cold stunner which proudly insists on the place of African Americans in the American artistic imagination, using the tropes of exclusionary imagery to new, more moral ends

The election approaches; the nation seethes; the hatred festers; the dead start to talk. Old intolerances have come roaring back as the United States finally reaches the end of the most virulent, vacuous presidential contest in living memory. For African Americans, particularly, the catastrophe of Donald Trumps candidacy has appeared almost as a punishment for the election of the first black president, and the overt, unashamed racism of his campaign, leavened with promises of violence, has affirmed that American history does not have an inbuilt happy ending.

In any other year, the recently opened retrospective of the paintings of Kerry James Marshall at New Yorks Met Breuer would be a significant event. Against the current backdrop of racist demagoguery and national disbelief, it arrives as a godsend. This stone-cold stunner of a retrospective spanning two floors of the Mets luxury rental on Madison Avenue, and organized with judicious restraint by Ian Alteveer and Meredith Brown proudly insists on the place of African Americans in the American artistic imagination. And yet that is only one of its achievements. It also, and perhaps more powerfully, grounds that placement inside a larger western artistic tradition, and utilizes the very tropes and techniques once used in exclusionary imagery to new, more moral ends.(The show opened last April at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Marshalls hometown; Michelle Obama made time to see it. It travels next year to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.)


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A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980. Photograph: Matthew Fried, MCA Chicago/Kerry James Marshall

Its 72 paintings skitter and shamble through the history of art, remixing its styles and redeploying its genres, though running through all Marshalls art, like a tonic note, is flesh of uniform, dense, light-absorbing black. Not the shades of brown skin we misleadingly call black, but black. Its achieved through the admixture of several different pigments coal black, or an ivory black produced from charred bones, or else something called mars black, which is made from iron oxide. The blacks gain further richness through blue or golden undertones, but no white is mixed into the pigment to model the actual flesh tones of African Americans.

His small, breakthrough painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self (1980) features a man whose jet-black skin just barely can be distinguished from the dark gray background. A fedora perches on his head cartoonishly, and teeth and eyeballs disrupt the crepuscular surface with shocks of white. Lean into this disturbing, uncanny work when you encounter the portrait in one of the early galleries here. At first the indeterminate, half-visible figure appears an instantiation of Ralph Ellisons invisible man. Seen up close, the portraits gemlike hardness recalls the exactitude, but also the opacity, of Flemish portraiture and, indeed, this is a rare work done with old-style, fast-drying egg tempera, rather than the malleable acrylic he would later embrace. (The exhibitions title, Mastry, is a brilliant, misspelled rejoinder to the old designation of skilled northern European artists as masters.) This shadow of Marshall has been cast by Renaissance depictions and minstrel shows alike, and by the constraints of not just American life but European high art.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Souvenir I, 1997. Photograph: Joe Ziolkowski, MCA Chicago/Kerry James Marshall

So Marshalls uncanny, intense blackness has both a personal derivation and a conceptual underpinning. His figures are not faithful depiction of black individuals. Theyre signs, and they channel and frustrate a centuries-long history of representations of blackness as evil, inferior, or simply absent before then, gloriously, asserting the prestige afforded to those representations as Marshalls rightful inheritance. Marshall paints barbershops and housing projects, spaces of black community and independence, and he also frequently turns to interiors: black people in bed, in their living room, reading a book, listening to music. But these depictions are not ends in themselves, any more than Czannes still lifes are advertisements for apples. His black-pitched portraits and genre scenes gain their force, rather, from the historical tradition they partially embrace, partially refute, and ultimately expand.

Sometimes Marshall can dip into a citational mode that gets a bit facile, a bit look-what-I-know, as in a barbershop panorama that features a cartoon white girl in the manner of the distorted skull in Holbeins Ambassadors. He is far better when he trusts his art history to serve as the mood music for his contemporary visions, above all in the largest gallery of this retrospective: a suite of nine giant paintings of Chicago and Los Angeles housing projects, plus suburban landscapes that wink heavily at the pastoral tradition. A black family sprawled out at a lakeside picnic recalls, but hardly imitates, the bourgeois snackers of Manets Djeuner sur lHerbe; children in an LA project frolic in the grass like rococo pleasure-seekers, and paintball-like flowers stud the paintings surface.

7am Sunday Morning, 2003. Photograph: Kerry James Marshall/Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
These paintings draw on art history not as a crutch, and not as a clapback. They draw on the past as a set of procedures, which Marshall combines and reworks to depict black bodies with a sophistication and intricacy usually not afforded them. Only that way, Marshall seems to insist, can black lives be seen as lives that matter. You can neither junk the past nor outrun it, but you can recode its values, and make the past your own. (A pendant show here, Kerry James Marshall Selects, offers a revealing glimpse of the artists sources and inspirations: a stern portrait from the workshop of Hans Holbein, flowing figure studies by Veronese,
a social-realist lithograph by his former teacher Charles Wilbert White, and a photograph of Gerhard Richters wife, smudged with paint.)

The very conception of western artistic beauty, as the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, springs from a racialized misunderstanding of the Greek ideal, as 18th-century aesthetes elevated the white marbles they venerated into the very standard of elegance. (Greek marbles were initially painted, and the Prussians who were beginning to write art history were looking at Roman copies anyway.) That makes Marshalls multifarious visions of black bodies convulsed with pleasure, black bodies racked with pain; black people as heroes, as everyday Joes a necessary expansion of the vocabulary of art. But such representations, while necessary, are not sufficient in themselves, and it would be an insult to reduce Marshalls achievement to a mere emendation of past ills.


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Vignette, 2003. Photograph: Kerry James Marshall

Look, and look, and look again at the greatest of Marshalls series: his portraits of fictional painters, men and women alike, whose black skin is offset by palettes of seething rainbows of smudged pigment. A man with an afro looks directly at us, in an empty studio of chilly blue. A broad-nosed woman wearing a patterned smock stands before an in-progress canvas, seemingly a self-portrait, that slyly reveals a paint-by-numbers outline. The giant palettes they grasp by the thumbholes are old-style gestures, but these artists are undaunted by past achievements, and absorb all history as their skin absorbs all light. These painters are masters, and the man who painted these painters is a master too.



  • <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Kerry James Marshall: Mastry is on view at the Met Breuer, New York, through 29 January. It opens at MOCA, Los Angeles, on 12 March 2017
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